Technology in a Living Lab

Technology in a Living Lab

A graduate student collects environmental DNA samples to survey for fish at a restored lake in 2014, as part of a project to save the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog in Yosemite. Photo: Jessica Thompson

Things to Do in Yosemite:

  1. Hike.
  2. Camp.
  3. Climb.
  4. Paddle.
  5. Conduct important scientific research.

That last item might not make it on your personal park list, but for professional (and citizen!) researchers, Yosemite is "living laboratory," where remarkable biodiversity, unique geology and protected natural resources create a perfect setting for studies on everything from the Sierra snowpack to migratory songbirds.

Through research our donors support in Yosemite, scientists are learning about a wide variety of ecosystems, animals and natural processes. Results from their work help shape efforts to protect and manage landscapes and living things within and beyond the park.

How do you conduct research in a living lab? Often, with cutting-edge technology. Read on to learn about tools scientists are using to observe and understand the natural world in Yosemite!

GPS-collared bighorn sheep in Yosemite's high country. Photo: NPS.


Technology: Global Positioning System (GPS) tools

Used for: Monitoring and mapping animal and plant species

In Yosemite: By providing daily location data on black bears, GPS collars help wildlife managers to keep the park's bear population wild and reduce human-bear encounters. GPS collars also allow biologists to monitor Yosemite's endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, even when winter snows limits the team's access to the alpine mammal's remote, rocky habitat.

Mapping plants with a GPS device. Photo: NPS.


In 2015, a tiny GPS tag affixed to a black-headed grosbeak as part of Yosemite's long-running songbird conservation program revealed that the species is a "molt-migrant" — the birds pause partway through migration to shed their feathers before continuing the journey south.

Beyond the animal world, Yosemite scientists use GPS technology to document rare plant species, including those that emerge for a brief period after wildfires. Using hand-held Trimble devices, botanists can easily map populations of Small's southern clarkia, pansy monkeyflower and other fire-following flora spotted during field surveys. 

Setting up a camera to watch for Sierra Nevada red fox and other species in Yosemite's Wilderness. Photo: NPS.


Technology: Motion-activated cameras

Used for: Keeping a virtual eye out for animals

In Yosemite: In 2015, scientists used images from motion-triggered cameras stationed in Yosemite's remote northern wilderness to confirm the presence of the rare Sierra Nevada red fox within park borders for the first time in nearly a century. Now, researchers are using cameras to continue searching for signs of the fox while gathering important information about its competitors and prey.

Cameras have also helped scientists monitor the park's small population of Pacific fishers, a candidate for the federal endangered species list. This non-intrusive approach to monitoring and data collection allows scientists to gain insight into some of the park's most elusive, vulnerable species.

Filtering water samples for eDNA analysis. Photo: NPS.

Technology:  Environmental DNA (eDNA)

Used for: Determining the presence of different organisms in a particular area

In Yosemite: Scientists are using eDNA techniques to help restore populations of rare amphibians and reptiles in Yosemite.

With eDNA, you search for genetic material in a sample taken from the environment. Here's how it works in Yosemite's alpine lakes, where scientists are reestablishing the endangered Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog:  (1) Collect lake water (see photo at the top of this story). (2) Pass the water through a filter to trap fish scales, skin cells or other organic material (see photo at right). (3) Extract and analyze the samples to look for DNA evidence of certain species. (4) Based on results, determine whether the lake is frog-friendly (free of predators).

This tool is also playing a part in efforts to reintroduce two species that haven't been seen in Yosemite Valley in half a century: the California red-legged frog and the western pond turtle.

Installing an electronic sensor that measures snow-depth and soil moisture. Photo: NPS.

Technology: Snow sensors and stream gauges

Used for: Monitoring snow and water resources

In Yosemite: Since the late 1920s, Yosemite rangers have been conducting periodic surveys to measure the depth and water content of snow at sites throughout the park. With support from our donors, scientists are now working to supplement those traditional field surveys with modern technology.

Yosemite snow surveyors in the 1950s. Photo: NPS.

Using data from electronic sensors and stream flow measurements, researchers are gaining a deeper understanding of how snowpack levels relate to other conditions, such as yearly water supply, drought stress and wildfire potential, and are refining a computer model that can accurately estimate snowpack depth and water distribution.

Using special software to record bat echolocation calls. Photo: © Keith Walklet.Technology: Acoustic monitoring software

Used for: Recording and visualizing bat calls

In Yosemite: The noises bats emit as they use echolocation to navigate the night sky are often out of human hearing range. Specialized software such as Sonobat, which records and "translates" bat calls into visual spectrograms, helps scientists listen in on Yosemite's flying mammals.

Last year, through a grant supported by our donors, visitors helped record and identify 525 bat calls during ranger-led evening walks at Crane Flat, Hodgdon Meadows and White Wolf. The calls came from 16 different bat Side view of a spotted bat. Photo: © Paul Cryan/USGSspecies, including three of "special concern" in California: the spotted, pallid and western mastiff bats.

If you're curious about Yosemite's flying mammals — and about the technology used to study them — keep an eye out for ranger- and naturalist-led bat walks on summer evenings.

Explore this year's grants to learn more about scientific research you can support in Yosemite — and check out our past blog posts about heading into the field with the red fox and bighorn sheep crews!


Yosemite Insider